“Day is as silent as the night …”
Thi Janakiraman was an enthusiast. Of life, of words. No matter what he wrote, he touched upon the subtle nuances of the topic in such a poignant way that it left you wondering for hours afterwards, about the mastery of his pen. His women were magnificent; his charcters were never two-dimensional, making you struggle to visualize them, his descriptive powers were the ultimate – and when he wrote about carnatic music, you knew at once that he was a connoisseur. He was the master of understatement. Never more so, in his classic novel, “Amma Vandhal.”
Here’s an excerpt from the master, where he decribes the Chennai of the ’50s and ’60s, in the novel, translated by Malati Mathur.
“Day is as silent as night. It is not as noisy as it had seemed earlier. Cars run past. The racket at the tap flares up. The buffalo bellows ceaselessly. The sea snarls all night. The Gurkha watchman makes his rounds, knocking the night awake with his cane. The water in the tap grumbles all the time in a soggy voice. The boy in the house opposite sits on the front thinnai and recites his lessons as loudly as if all the boys in the city were shouting out in one voice. Appa keeps nudging god by mumbling an indistinct sloka or some mantra. Anna, as usual, teaches his tuition class in a high-pitched tone.
The seven or eight mongrels usually lying scattered around the street suddenly get together and start barking, like musical instruments competing in a concert. They fall over each other, biting and growling, exploding in bursts of sound like a series of crackers going off. Somebody yells out, and one of the dogs whimpers and scampers away. The concert ends abruptly with no sign of ever having been played. The corporation bill collector in the neighbouring house sneezes continuously , at least forty or fifty times. This seems to occur regularly in a four-day cycle.
Yet, it is quiet. Appu would recite the Vedas morning and afternoon in order to keep them fresh in his memory. At those times everything would seem peaceful to him. At night he would repeat them in his mind and again feel that all was serene.
He gets up at dawn. Bathes. Prays. Goes to the market and returns. Climbs into a bus and goes to Mambalam. Visits the house of a retired engineer where around seven or eight people are gathered. They are elderly but sprightly: he teaches them the Vedas and also explains the meaning of the verses. He returns home at around ten. Again recites the Vedas by himself. As in the morning, he has a class of four old people in the evening too, in a school building. This is for four days a week. On other days, he sits on the beach. There the sea roars and there is the murmur of the crowd in the distance. All this too is noiseless.
But when he sees Mother, when he looks at Father, when he glimpses Sivasu, then a great clamour rises in his ears, over and above the concert of the dogs. Not when he sees Mother at all times, though. Nor when he looks at Father at any odd time. But only on those days when Sivasu visits or when thoughts of him accost the memory.
All of a sudden, Sivasu’s voice would be heard in the middle of the afternoon on some days, for about five minutes. One day it was heard right inside the room upstairs.
He went down the stairs briskly. Sivasu was apparently taking his ease on the swing. Mother stood close to the pillar. Without looking at either of them, keeping his expression neutral, he walked out with rapid steps into the High Street.
Thank god, what a noise! What a crowd, and how many buses and cars! A row of garbage carts rumble and clatter along, drawn by huge bulls toiling laboriously. The racket of a radio playing in a shop somewhere mingles with the tapping of a goldsmith’s hammer. Drrr, drr, drrr, goes a motorcycle, with a roar. These sounds fill his ears with sweetness. Appu turns at Pycroft’s Building and walks towards the beach. The hubbub of fruit vendors … the commotion of flower sellers … lorries … all the sounds streaming forth in torrents like sweet melodies. The sunshine too drains the skin. The beach draws near; when he looks up at the University clock, he sees it is only three thirty. The sweeping sand of the shore yawns emptily. Even so, he crosses the road, walks on and sits down on a bench under a tree. The sea, which had rippled softly, now begins to roar.
It is only after coming and sitting here that he realises it. Even coming here is of no use, for like a tightly shut door thrown open abruptly, the noise is heard all of a sudden once more. He can see Father in his mind. When he thinks of Father, this clamour, this disgust vanishes in an instant. It does not emerge when he comes face to face with him. Nor when he speaks to him. Or when he recites the Vedas along with him…”